So many choices and considerations… does the flute key really matter?
What about the size of your instrument, quality of tone, building materials, craftsmanship, reputation of flute maker, ornamentation, decorations, mouthpiece, finger holes, construction: flue in the flute/flue in the block (whaaaat?) ?
Take a deep breath and keep it simple. Your first flute can be any flute that sounds good to you, feels good to hold, and makes you feel good inside. Try it out in person. If it is easy to play, fits your hands, and feels comfortable in your mouth, then make sure it is within your budget range and you are good to go. That’s not a lot to ask for, is it? I think the best advice would be to choose a flute that you will want to actually play, over and over again, and not just decorate your wall or display as a conversation piece.
That said, here are some practical considerations to think about. It is highly recommended that you purchase your first flute in person, so you can test how it responds and feels to you when you play it. And then there is the matter of whether you want to play alone or with other musicians. This brings up a major consideration, the flute key, and whether it is concert tuned or not. If you are going to play alone, it really doesn’t matter what key you buy, or if the instrument is only in tune with itself. But, if you are joining a flute circle, certain keys are more popular, and concert tuning helps when you want to play along with other musicians.
So, what are the popular keys, and why so many different flute keys?
Each Native American-style Flute is tuned to only one key for the basic scale, a five-note (pentatonic) scale, so it has limited range of notes you can play. It’s not like a concert flute that can play over three full octaves. Instead, you can play just over one octave. (Imagine a piano, with over seven full octaves of black and white notes verses a children’s toy with seven white keys…. you see what I’m saying.) Don’t get me wrong, a Native American-style Flute is not a toy, but it is limited in its range of notes, and scales that you can play. That is why there are so many different flute keys…about 25-30 from which to choose.
The name of the flute key comes from the note sounded when all finger holes are covered (the home base note) and there are three different registers, ranges, or octaves: low, mid-range, and high. What this means for you is that you will want a versatile first flute so that you can play anything anywhere. A versatile flute is one in a mid-range key. Again, think of a piano keyboard… you will get most use out of the tones in the middle of the keyboard.
The key of A-minor comes to mind as a good first flute because it is small for transport, has easy to reach finger holes, is ideal for learning music theory, and can be accompanied by many other instruments. It is a great lifetime flute if you are young and just starting. You cannot fail playing this flute if you want to join a flute circle.
The most popular key overall is G-minor, so there will be plenty from which to choose. Another popular mid-range flute is the key of F#-minor, as it is slightly larger and may have a wider finger hole stretch, it gives a pleasing tone and becomes a healing or meditation instrument for many.
As a side note, the mid B-minor flute (higher pitch) is popular with dulcimer and the low E-minor flute (lower pitch) is popular for playing along with guitar. Again, try before you buy and know your application, how and where you will most enjoy playing your instrument.
Let’s compare the three most popular mid-range flute keys to help narrow down your decision:
- Highest pitch of all three
- Bright, sweet sound
- Typically smaller, easiest to transport and play
- Commonly used for group playing
- Standard for many flute circles and workshops due to easy chord accompaniment
- Good choice for a beginner or a child as a lifetime flute
- Most popular key overall, a good compromise between the A-minor and F#-minor
- Large selection from which to choose from any flute maker
- Very grounding, connects to the Earth’s vibration
- Recommended for relaxation, can help calm nerves
- Comfortable size and finger reach makes it a good choice for beginning adult
- Lowest pitch of all three
- Usually larger in size, sometimes longer fingering stretch
- Larger bore may require more breath
- Very soothing sound, notes correspond to the frequency of our DNA
- Good choice for music therapy, vibrational sound healing, private meditation or spiritual practice
- Notes match actual pitches on the staff of “Nakai tablature” fingering position notation system, so if you have previous musical training, have perfect pitch, or plan to read or write Native American-style flute music this is a very compatible key
Happy hunting for that special connection between you and your flute! And remember… it has been said many times, “Your first flute will choose you!”